BERLIN – In a series of talks with inspirational mobility leaders, we are picking the brains of some of the most influential opinion-makers in the industry. We were recently lucky enough to sit down with Sophie Seiwald, Managing Director Mercedes-Benz.io. Talking about running a start-up within a very traditional company, we also touched on the principles of holacracy and how to cultivate a culture based on a completely new set of corporate values.
Mercedes-Benz.io, or MBIO to make it easier, is an in-house start-up with the mission to shape the digital future of Mercedes-Benz. Sophie, can you give some examples of practical outcomes based on your work?
The results of our work are very tangible as it can be seen directly on the website www.mercedes-benz.com. We are responsible for building the whole online brand experience for Mercedes-Benz worldwide. At the moment we are also building a platform to enable online sales of products that are produced by Mercedes-Benz, from cars to services.
Would you be able to say that you are transitioning from a classical retailer to being a platform company?
I believe that we are all in a transition phase. At MBIO, we are only focusing on platforms. We assume that they are the future, and therefore all our strategies are pointing towards that. But this is just the beginning, and we are still learning. Something we have realized is that buying a car is an actual journey, and certainly not a one day experience. Customers really explore their options and end up knowing more about the car than we do ourselves.
How do you go about approaching moving from brick and mortar to online sale without the personal engagement that you would normally have with an offline seller?
Today, none of the OEMs really understand how a customer actually goes about buying a car online. We are building, designing, and planning cars, but we have never been selling cars ourselves. If we want to push online sales, we need to first understand what the digital person needs. Nowadays people find all the information they need about cars online. If we do not get onboard with that new trend, somebody else will.
“You should never underestimate the learning effect of new projects.”
Besides what you’ve just told us about MBIO, one of the projects that you have developed has been the Bertha app. What can you tell us more about it?
Bertha is a really amazing lighthouse project. For the first time, we are approaching all drivers out there — not only Mercedes-Benz drivers. The app locates the cheapest gas stations around you and lets you pay directly through the app. Here, we actually try to launch a digital business model. A lot of research was required, and we learned a lot from partners that helped us.
One of the things that MBIO and Trafi have in common, is that we both have offices in three different locations. How is the work structured between your local hubs?
We have around 300 people in the company, distributed across 40 teams. We encourage teams to travel and meet whenever they feel it makes sense, and we also have something called the Pit Stop. This is a format where the whole company gets together to share news about products, news and so on. It is essential to preserve a common culture between the hubs. We want to be one company and not three companies in three locations.
In the last two years, you have grown massively. Before having three sites in Europe and around 300 employees, you were just a small internal pilot. Could you share three key takeaways of how you scale at this speed?
“That is our mantra: be self-organized and connected.”
I know that leadership and corporate culture are your passions. You lead MBIO in a different way and the main principle of your leadership is holacracy. For everyone who is new to this term, could you please break it down for us?
Holacracy is not something that we invented, there are lots of books written about it. It is based on the fact that your accountabilities are being set in roles. In traditional work set-ups, if you are the boss, you are the boss in each and every meeting. With holacracy, I could also be a tester 30% of my time. But when I am testing the product, I am no longer a CEO and telling other people what to do. It is still a structure, but your power is distributed through different roles that you have. We expect everyone to act in the role that they have been hired for during the majority of the time, but everyone can take on different roles next to that.
What else have you been able to detract from holacracy?
I think that one of the most beautiful examples is our advocate concept. Employees can basically invest into advocates, or mentors who become their own spokesperson. If a problem arises between two employees, they will first meet together with their advocates to try and solve the issue.
Another interesting aspect of your leadership is the freedom that your teams have to speak up. One of your developers once said “If we would always do what Sophie thinks should be done, we would only be as good as Sophie is.” How do you make sure that everyone was on board and comfortable enough to act in this way?
The most important thing is to be a role model. Whenever someone asks me to make a decision, I tell them that I may not be the right person to make that decision. We hired great people who are perfectly able to organize their own lives, so I believe they are also perfectly able to organize their work without supervision. As long as everyone does it with the interest of the company in mind, I have no problem with people acting without consulting me. Making mistakes is fine. And in my opinion, our working environment should create the perfect platform for everyone to shine.
Founded in 2013, Trafi is a Lithuanian tech start-up. Trafi is working shoulder-to-shoulder with cities, countries, and companies worldwide to create the best in class Mobility-as-a-Service alternative for congested cities. Trafi offers cities the possibility to connect all mobility services into one single platform where users can check itineraries and also book their tickets and trips.
Trafi’s mission is to empower cities’ urban transportation with technology and know-how and encourage citizens to use more sustainable modes of transportation by accessing all services into one single platform. Trafi is currently live in 4 continents around the world and 7 cities.